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Bucs play a game! 'It actually felt like baseball'

Club navigates rain to get in first intrasquad action at PNC Park
July 10, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates planned to play an intrasquad game on Thursday night, but instead they were dealt their first rainout of the year. When they woke up Friday morning and saw more rain in the evening forecast, they scrambled to change their plans again. Bench coach Don Kelly rearranged

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates planned to play an intrasquad game on Thursday night, but instead they were dealt their first rainout of the year. When they woke up Friday morning and saw more rain in the evening forecast, they scrambled to change their plans again.

Bench coach Don Kelly rearranged the team’s entire schedule and reached out to the players who needed to show up ready to scrimmage at 3 p.m. ET, about four hours earlier than expected. PNC Park director of field operations Matt Brown and his team rushed to prepare the ballpark for its first game since the Pirates hosted the Reds on Sept. 29. It all worked out as the Pirates played their first intrasquad game of Summer Camp on a humid, but gorgeous, Friday afternoon exactly two weeks before Opening Day.

The game lasted only 6 1/2 innings, and by the end it devolved into a simulated game with coaches manning the infield. But for five innings, the Pirates played something that resembled their first game in nearly four months.

"It was cool,” left fielder Bryan Reynolds said. “It actually felt like baseball.”

Notes: Reynolds draws high praise from skipper

It wasn’t, really, even if the players were in full uniform. On his way out to home plate, catcher Luke Maile elbow-bumped Oscar Marin and other masked members of the coaching staff standing on the field. Manager Derek Shelton took his seat not in the dugout, but alongside general manager Ben Cherington in the Hyundai Club seats behind home plate. At one point, JT Riddle and Phillip Evans switched teams so they could get work at different positions.

The home-plate umpire was Jeremy Bleich, the former left-handed pitcher who now works with the Pirates’ analytics department. Bleich wore pink and white catchers’ gear from a past Mother’s Day game. Afterward, Shelton was in search of a fanny pack to add to Bleich’s ensemble so he won’t have to keep calling to the dugout for extra baseballs.

The only people in the stands were a handful of Pirates employees and a couple photographers. That changed in the second inning, when pitchers Steven Brault and Mitch Keller found seats atop the Clemente Wall in right field. At one point, they did the wave. To make it feel like a Pirates home game, Brault let out a single and all-too-familiar “Woo!”

“Anytime we can get that kind of right-field enthusiasm,” Shelton deadpanned, “we’re excited.”

Trevor Williams, the starter for Team Black, warmed up with Maile in silence. Infielders set up defensive shifts against their own teammates. From the main concourse behind home plate, you could hear the traffic on General Robinson Street and Williams grunting as he got Josh Bell to swing and miss three times in his first-inning at-bat.

The right-field scoreboard was off. The video board in left field flashed with information on each pitch -- pitch type, velocity, spin rate, etc. -- and batted ball – exit velocity, launch angle and so on. In the shadow of that board was special assistant David Eckstein, playing left field for Team Gold. When Eckstein snagged José Osuna’s fly ball for the second out of the first inning, you could hear someone on the field reference the fact that Eckstein was the 2006 World Series MVP.

Amid all the things that seemed unusual, there were the more familiar rhythms of baseball. Players cheered when Cole Tucker made a couple of highlight-reel plays at shortstop, when Osuna laid out for a diving stop down the first-base line and when Maile threw out a runner at second base. Shelton said he was thrilled with the players’ overall intensity.

“Every day we feel like we get closer, you start to feel the energy a little bit,” Shelton said. “We don’t want anybody to go full-out right now because we don’t want any of those soft-tissue injuries that we talked about. But the fact that they went about it the way they did today, with the enthusiasm they did, it was nice to see the first day.”

Williams worked five innings, giving up only one run on four hits and a walk while striking out four. Left-hander Robbie Erlin worked two innings as Team Gold’s starter then gave way to right-handers Clay Holmes, Nick Burdi and Michael Feliz.

Team Gold scored in the fourth when Bell walked, took third on Colin Moran’s line-drive single through the shift into right field and scored on Jacob Stallings’ double-play grounder. Team Black evened the score against Burdi, who walked Osuna then gave up an RBI single to Gregory Polanco. Maile launched a home run off Feliz and into the visitors' bullpen an inning later.

Nobody is going to get caught up in the results of an intrasquad game, though. As is usually the case early in Spring Training, the pitchers are ahead of the hitters.

"I'm just trying to get my eyes back and see some pitches coming,” Reynolds said. “Just get back in the swing of things all around."

Position players only spent five innings in the field as they’re easing their way back into action. So when Dovydas Neverauskas and Richard Rodríguez took the mound, their defense consisted of Kelly at first base, David Eckstein at second base, hitting coach Rick Eckstein at shortstop and Shelton occasionally manning third base.

“We had the Eckstein brothers, really good. Then we had Donnie, who, of course, Donnie’s Donnie,” Shelton said. “Then I stood at third trying not to get hurt.”

At one point, Shelton scooped up a ground ball and heaved it across the infield to Kelly -- “the longest throw I’ve made in about 25 years,” Shelton said. The game ended in faux controversy, with Bleich making a questionable strike-three call on Neverauskas’ last pitch to Polanco.

It wasn’t quite the real thing, but it was close enough for now.

“It was cool to get back into that and feel like we're playing baseball again,” Reynolds said.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.